If you are a fan of folktales, myths, and legends, then 2022 is your year. Vietnam has joined the growing list of fantastic local tales on stamps with their June 25 release Vietnamese Fairy Tales: The Starfruit Tree | Truyện cổ tích Việt Nam: Cây khế.
The story uses a universal motif of greed and sibling rivalry to spin a cautionary tale. Artist and designer Nguyễn Du created this beautiful storyboard, featuring vividly colourful illustrations. Nguyễn has created many stamps for Vietnam post, but this will rank as his best work.
The story lays out, in 4 frames the basics of the tale and woven between each stamp, is a starfruit tree. Before we go further, I realize not everyone knows what a starfruit is and why it’s called a starfruit, so let’s start with a photo.
Yes, it is star shaped when sliced up, hence it’s name. The tree grows throughout southeast Asia and can be found all over Vietnam. It’s hard to describe the flavour, a bit sweet and sour, occasionally a little bitter with hints of citrus. I can’t quite figure out how to explain because it’s unique and worth trying.
The series was issued for the Vietstampex National Postage Stamp Exhibition 2020 which takes place June 24 to June 26, 2022. Like everything else in the world, this was postponed from 2020.
Folktale from Vietnam – origin story
I referenced a number of translations for this article, including The Golden Star Fruit Tree (vietnam-culture.com) and Fairy Tales – Read Fairy Tales: The Tree (elaopa.org). The story revolves around a starfruit tree and two brothers. The brothers’ parents died, leaving them property to be divided between them. The younger brother was a sweet, gentle person and the older a greedy, ill tempered individual.
As time went on, both brothers married. The older brother decided he wanted to live on his own with his wife, telling his younger brother he had to move out. Being a greedy sort, he took the lion’s share of the property, with the best gardens and house. That left the younger and his wife with a broken down hut to live in.
The only thing of value on the property was a starfruit tree. The younger brother and his wife eked out a living from the poor soil, and carefully tended to the tree. One year, the tree began to flourish, producing fruit that was unusually bright yellow and tasty looking. The brother and his wife were excited, thinking they could take the fruit to market and buy rice with the money they made.
The giant bird & the starfruit tree
The morning they were going to take the fruit to market, they found a giant bird roosting in the tree, eating their valuable fruit. The brother, in despair, tried to chase the bird away crying out they needed that fruit to sell. Without that fruit they will starve.
The bird replied, telling the poor couple that if it allowed him to eat their starfruit, the bird would reward them with gold nuggets. The great bird told the pair to sew a bag measuring 3ft long and wait for the bird’s return. As long as the bird was allowed to eat from the tree, the couple would be rewarded with gold.
The shocked couple returned to their hut and discussed the bird’s proposition. They knew without that fruit, they would be faced with hunger, but decided to do as the bird instructed. The next morning, the bird returned and ate all the fruit. Husband and wife clung to each other, wondering if they had made a mistake in trusting this bird.
After eating all the ripe fruit on the tree, the bird flew down to the ground and told the brother to climb on board, with his bag. The brother obeyed and the pair flew off into the distance. They flew for hours, eventually landing on a deserted island. The bird told the brother to dismount and look around. The island was filled with wonderful treasures of gold, silver, and jewels.
The bird instructed the brother to fill his bag. That was his reward for his generosity. Doing as he was told, the brother packed his bag full, and the bird flew him back to his home. From then on, the brother and his wife lived a better life. They remained kind-hearted, never changed their ways, and often helped their fellow villagers.
The older brother shows his greed
One day, the younger brother invited the older brother over to commemorate their parents. The older brother hadn’t changed and was still greedy and selfish. He despised his younger brother and began to make unreasonable demands on him for the honour of attending the commemoration. Not knowing his brother was now wealthy, he insisted, on what he thought would be unreachable demands, believing the brother would be humiliated. The older brother wanted the road and path leading up to the younger brother’s home covered in rugs and mats and have the gates adorned with gold.
The younger brother didn’t want to cause a problem and complied. The older brother and his wife arrived and were shocked to see the younger brother doing so well. During their meal, he found out the secret of their good fortune. The younger brother, being a decent individual, thought they could share the treasures, but the older brother wanted the tree to himself. He proposed he and his brother swap properties, he would take the hut and the tree, and his brother could have the richer properties and all its wealth. The younger brother had always complied with his older brother’s wishes and so once again agreed.
The older brother lay about by the starfruit tree, eager for the bird to return. One morning, the bird reappeared and made the same deal with the brother. He gave the instructions to the brother about making a bag 3 feet long and to prepare for the trip the next day.
The brother’s selfishness causes a disaster
Instead of making one bag, the brother made two, each 6ft long so he could bring more gold and gems home than his brother had. The next day, the bird arrived and ate the starfruit and then took the brother to the island. The brother was filled with insatiable greed and stuffed both bags with as much gold as he could. He had so much, he struggled to get back onto the bird.
The combined weight of the brother and his over filled sacks was almost too much, and the bird struggled to lift off and fly away. While over the water, the bird could barely stay aloft, and began to sway back and forth because of the excess weight. It was no good, the bird couldn’t fly properly because the brother’s greed was too much. Eventually the bird tilting too far and the brother fell into the sea. He refused to let go of his treasure and was swept away, drowning rather than saving himself. His greed led to his own death.
This cautionary tale is completed with a spectacular souvenir sheets. Vietnam issued a beautiful star-shaped souvenir sheet, complete with starfruit decorating the edges.
The final scene, played out on this sheet, shows a happy village, content and living peacefully.
The image on the stamp shows the representative element of pure Vietnamese culture with 5-storey ancient houses, brick courtyards, straw trees, buffalo herds, rice fields. The character of the characters, honesty or cunning, hard work or laziness … They are all clearly depicted in contrast. VNPost | Introducing the stamp set “Vietnamese Fairy Tales: The Tree”
If you are a fan of animation, then this Vietnamese cartoon, from the Children’s Channel at BHMedia, about the Starfruit tree story should delight you. It is in Vietnamese and myy advice is to simply enjoy the beauty of the artwork and not bother with the bizarre automated captioning. The tale is easy to follow and the artwork is beautiful. Enjoy.
More folktales and stories
And finally, if you are a lover of folktales and legends from around the world, this year’s EUROPA theme is a must see. EUROPA 2022 celebrates local stories and myths from over 60 countries. You can check them out here Weaving tales with EUROPA 2022 – Stories & Myths | Bitter Grounds Magazine. As well, don’t forget to check out my TOPICALS, EUROPA & SEPAC stamps index. There is a section titled Ghost stories, monsters, myths & legends, with 5 articles (as of publication date) dealing with myths and legends.
As always, I hope you enjoyed this article. It takes time and work to pull together posts for Bitter Grounds and you can help keep it running with “Buy Me a Coffee” donations. Every donation makes a difference.